Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

How an Eskasoni tutor uses Mi'kmaw 8-pointed stars to teach math

Stephen Francis of Eskasoni, N.S., is combining math with pride in his Mi'kmaw culture and a passion for woodworking.

Stephen Francis has found a way to combine his love of woodworking with math tutoring

Francis is shown with two of his larger creations. Each individual piece of wood that makes up a star is cut, sanded and put together by hand. (Submitted by Stephen Francis)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Stephen Francis of Eskasoni, N.S., dropped out of high school and left home as a teen to work in the U.S., but after being sidelined by an injury, he enrolled in a GED program to pursue an abandoned dream.

CBC News reporter Erin Pottie recently sat down with Francis, 58, at his Cape Breton home to hear more about his life, and how he's using Mi'kmaw art to teach math to a new generation of Indigenous students.

Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to go back to school?

I grew up in Eskasoni until I was about 15, 16 then I dropped out of school and moved to Maine, and I worked at potato houses making baskets, and I was moving back and forth.

Then I hurt my back when I was 18, 19 and I couldn't work as hard anymore. So I said I have to get back my education. I believe in traditions and I believed in native culture basically back then — and I believed in a Great Spirit. And if you wish for something, it'll come.

Then I wished I had a  chance to go back to school and learn something and learn a trade or education. 

Francis, seen in his woodshop, says there is a great deal of math involved in creating his eight-pointed stars with its precise angles. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

And where exactly did you study?

A year and a half later, I'm going to school at [a developmental program] in the United States. It had a nursing program, plus they helped you get your GED. All I did was learn basically how to do math, English, and got my GED and plus a vocational. Then at nights I started taking night classes at Husson University [in Maine].

I took computer programming, I took algebra. In my time at Husson I wrote a program and it was a very long program I wrote for a store and it ran the store itself. They [university staff] were so impressed they said you should apply for Husson. This was back in 1985. One of my advisors said, 'Steve, you should apply for University of Maine also.'

About a couple months later, the most wonderful thing in this world is getting accepted for full scholarships for University of Maine and Husson [University].

Two years before, I was a dropout in Eskaoni. It was a hard decision for me, but I had to take University of Maine because they had newer computers, basically. 

An Eskasoni man is using Mi'kmaw craft to teach math to students. Our pop-up bureau in Eskasoni learns about wooden stars.

Did you always excel at math?

I couldn't get algebra. I failed it five times, and I just couldn't get that x, y. When I left Eskasoni in Grade 9 we [hadn't] done algebra yet. At the [University of Maine] I took a placement test and they said what you need is tutoring, you don't have writing, and mathematics you [only have] the basics. 

I understand how it feels for a student when you're having problems in mathematics. [I kept getting zeros] on tests and this keeps on going. I get discouraged. To learn my algebra, I took 100 math algebra questions and next one I typed out the answers.

I tested myself and started a timer. It took me two hours and I corrected my work. I think I got 60 or 75 wrong. Then I printed out another set, and I tested myself again and it only took me an hour and I only got 45 wrong. Third time I did it, out of those 100 questions it took me 20 minutes and I checked my answers and there were only seven wrong.

My [instructor later told me] it's continuous [and involves practice], so that was my philosophy. I won't accept a C or D … I'll have to go get an A or B or I'll take the course again. 

And how did you become a tutor?

In 1996, or something, I was back in Canada, I was taking care of my grandmother. And they had [a Training and Education Centre] here in Eskasoni … they were offering a free internet course. I applied for it and I took a test for them and I guess I scored 100 on the math [component].

I started working on the computers basically … I asked 'Could I stay during the lunch time and use the computers? And next thing 'Can I stay until 4 o'clock in the afternoon?'

Next thing I know I have some [university-level] students they were taking business math and statistics. And some of them were having problems. I was sitting there in the copy room and I asked 'Let me see what you guys got?' And I was showing them how to do it.

Even one of those students was [Eskasoni's Chief] Leroy Denny. I didn't charge anything. I was helping them out basically. The students would often ask me, 'Why are we learning statistics and business math?' I used to tell them, one of these days you guys are going to be in that band office and you'll be a councillor or something. People will be coming into your community and [they'll] take from us because we don't know math, we don't know our interest rates. You're going to be making decisions that affect a lot of people.

Out of 30 students, I think 24 of them got their degrees. 

And when did you start woodworking?

I started about 15 years ago, we had a mill up on Mountain Road in Eskasoni. I was the major cutter there. I was making playhouses and I was making garbage boxes. My first [eight-pointed star] came in a dream.

What it means to me in my dream, the first eight pieces represent somebody in my family that passed away who made me who I am. The next row is the next people that make you and then it keeps on going.

This is who a person is, because you don't learn everything from your mother and father.   

The eight-pointed star has been a symbol in Mi’kmaw communities for centuries. The traditional star is meant to represent the sun, while Francis says the diamonds in his creations represent people who made an impact on an individual's life. (Submitted by Stephen Francis)

How do you use the stars to help teach math to students?

There's a lot of angles [to making a star] and it has to make sense, basically. It has to be perfect, even one-tenth of a degree, eight times about that you're one degree off and your star won't close. It's very important to be precise.

My classroom ... is also my workshop. A lot of my students — I show them how to use a table saw or I showed them how to use a cutoff saw and how to cut basically. It's incorporated in how I teach them math. 

And what's next for you?

[Before the pandemic] my goal is … to leave Eskasoni and go across Canada. This is my dream, to go across the native communities and show how to do math my way. And that's my dream, to go across Canada and be a guest speaker. And to fund this, I was going to take my eight-pointed stars with me and sell them along the way. 

Some of Francis's stars have found homes around the Maritimes and as far away as California. (Submitted by Stephen Francis)

Have a story from or about Eskasoni First Nation to pitch or an issue you'd like to share with us Email erin.pottie@cbc.ca or Maisyn.sock@cbc.ca. Click here for more information.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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